Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and former special White House assistant to President Kennedy who was an influential liberal voice in American politics for decades, died Wednesday. He was 89.
Schlesinger, who chronicled the Kennedy administration in his 1965 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Thousand Days,” suffered a heart attack Wednesday night at a New York City restaurant, according to his son Stephen C. Schlesinger. He was pronounced dead at New York Downtown Hospital.
Once described as “one of the last great figures from the Golden Age of American intellectuals,” the Harvard-educated historian received early recognition for his scholarly work.
He was 21 when his first book, “Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress,” was published in 1939. In a review for the New York Times, renowned historian Henry Steele Commager said the book about the 19th century American intellectual “not only rescues from underserved oblivion a striking and authentic figure in our history, but announces a new and distinguished talent in the field of historical portraiture.”
At 28, Schlesinger received his first Pulitzer Prize, for the 1945 bestseller “The Age of Jackson,” a reevaluation of Andrew Jackson’s presidency that, as Edwin A. Miles wrote in “The Dictionary of Literary Biography,” “stands as a significant landmark in the writing of the nation’s history.”
Schlesinger gained further acclaim in the 1950s for what many historians consider his greatest achievement: his multi-volume “The Age of Roosevelt.” The three volumes published between 1957 and 1960 were popular Book of the Month Club selections that, according to Miles, “attest to his superb style, felicity of phrase, keen sense of drama, and successful blending of narrative and analytical history.”
History professor Alan Brinkley of Columbia University told the Boston Globe in 1997 that Schlesinger in the first decade after World War II “was far and away the most influential historian of Jacksonian democracy, the New Deal and probably one of the two or three most influential historians of any sort” in the United States.
Schlesinger also championed Democratic and liberal policies in various books during this period, including “The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom” (1949), “Kennedy or Nixon: Does It Make Any Difference?” (1960) and “The Politics of Hope” (1963).
He later criticized President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam policy in the 1967 book “The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966.” And, in 2004, he targeted the Iraq war and the presidency of George W. Bush in “War and the American Presidency.”
Among Schlesinger’s many books is one that added a popular phrase to the political lexicon: “The Imperial Presidency” (1973), his study of -- and call to curb -- the escalating power of the executive branch.
Managing dual roles
But Schlesinger’s influence extended beyond the written word. He played a prominent role in U.S. politics for decades.
In 1947, he joined former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and others as founding members of Americans for Democratic Action, an influential liberal organization whose early efforts included fighting for the inclusion of a strong civil rights plank in the platform at the 1948 Democratic Convention.
During the 1952 and 1956 presidential campaigns, Schlesinger took leaves of absence from Harvard to work as an advisor and speech writer for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. He had similar roles during Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
For some, Schlesinger’s dual roles as a historian and political activist were at odds. He saw it differently.
“I always combined academic life with what academics call ‘the real world,’ ” the slight and bespectacled Schlesinger, dapperly sporting one of his trademark bow ties, told the Boston Globe in 1997. “Being a concerned citizen does not prevent one from being a good historian.”
After Kennedy’s election in 1960, Schlesinger resigned from the faculty at Harvard to join the new administration.
“It was an invitation no historian could resist -- to see how decisions were made,” he later told the Boston Globe.
As a special assistant to the president, Schlesinger served as liaison with Stevenson, Kennedy’s ambassador to the United Nations and as an advisor on Latin America. He also was the administration’s link between the scholastic, intellectual and cultural communities.
Former Kennedy speechwriter Theodore Sorenson once described the outspoken historian as “a lightning rod to attract Republican attacks away from the rest of us.”
Of Schlesinger’s role in the Kennedy administration, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) has said that Schlesinger was a man without whom his brother “Jack couldn’t have had the New Frontier.”
Schlesinger had befriended John Kennedy after World War II when Kennedy was elected as congressman in Schlesinger’s Boston-area district.
“I got along with him quite well,” Schlesinger told the Associated Press in 2004. “He was charming and intelligent, although I found him rather conservative. But he grew, and by the 1950s I was very supportive of him.”
Kennedy, he added, “had infinite curiosity, as FDR did, and he won people’s loyalties and services, effortlessly. It was the most exhilarating experience of my life, working for and with JFK.”
In late January 1964, two months after Kennedy’s assassination, the White House announced that Schlesinger had resigned as special assistant to President Johnson, effective March 1.
“With Kennedy gone, " Schlesinger later explained, “it was no longer exhilarating.”
After leaving the White House, he wrote “A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House,” the 1965 book that earned him his second Pulitzer Prize and his first National Book Award.
“I felt I owed it both to the memory of the president and to the historical profession to put it all down,” wrote Schlesinger.
Schlesinger, who worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s ill-fated 1968 presidential campaign and named his youngest son after the slain senator, wrote a 1978 biography of his friend, “Robert Kennedy and His Times,” which earned him a second National Book Award.
Schlesinger’s two Kennedy books were bestsellers. But because of his status as a member of Kennedy’s inner circle, the books were criticized as being too friendly to the late president -- or, as a Boston Globe writer later put it, “a lion of U.S. historiography had become a lamb of Kennedy apologetics.”
Schlesinger’s response was that, for historians, partiality is often inevitable -- whether the subject is dead or alive.
“I’m sure my affection for the Kennedys shaded my judgment, but my affection for Jackson and Lincoln also shades my judgment,” he told the Associated Press in 2004. “You don’t have to know people in order to be in favor of them or against them.”
A pervasive voice
Over the years, Schlesinger frequently wrote newspaper opinion pieces and provided his views and historical perspective on topics such as why supply-side economic policies pursued by the Reagan administration didn’t work in the 1920s and would probably fail again in the 1980s and political correctness, which he called “the attempt to teach history in the schools in order to please a variety of ethnic history groups.” The result, he argued, “disunites the American past.”
Schlesinger also was a longtime contributor to the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page. The Journal’s late editorial page editor Robert Bartley told the Boston Globe in 1997 that while the liberal Schlesinger wrote from “the other side of the great chasm of opinion we have,” he did so with “grace and rare reasonableness.” And, Bartley added, “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have had writing for us over the past 25 years.”
The son of the prominent historian Arthur Meier Schlesinger, he was born Arthur Bancroft Schlesinger in Columbus, Ohio, on Oct. 15, 1917. Schlesinger so admired his father that, in his early teens, he took it upon himself to adopt his father’s middle name and thus become Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.
When he was 2, the family moved to Iowa City, where they lived until 1924 when his father accepted a tenured position at Harvard. At home in Cambridge, Mass., Schlesinger was surrounded by his parents’ many influential friends, such as Western conservationist and historian Bernard DeVoto, future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, novelist John Dos Passos and humorist James Thurber.
The intellectually precocious Schlesinger, who skipped the second and fourth grades, was a voracious reader who devoured the classics and historical novels. He also was devoted to studying the World Almanac, later recalling that he bored his parents and their guests at Sunday teas by reciting the population statistics of major world cities.
His extensive reading inspired him to write -- everything from adventure stories to a parody encyclopedia.
His love of reading and writing paid off at school. Upon examining his son’s homework, the senior Schlesinger once commented, “I liked your essay ... and know that you must have had fun writing it. There is always a little thrill one gets from saying things well.”
In recalling the incident decades later, Schlesinger wrote: “This last sentence for some reason has lingered in my mind ever since. It remains true.”
In 1931, Schlesinger entered the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire -- a conservative bastion where, he later wrote, he was “among a tiny band committed to the cause of FDR.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s early White House years helped Schlesinger solidify the liberal political views that had been shaped at home, and his admiration for FDR never waned. As he wrote in his 2000 book “A Life in the 20th Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917-1950,” the first of a planned two-volume memoir:
“FDR summed it up in January 1937 in his Second Inaugural: ‘The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have too much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’”
And, Schlesinger made a point of adding, “I remain to this day a New Dealer, unreconstructed and unrepentant.”
He graduated from Exeter in 1933 at 15 and joined his parents and his younger brother, Tom, on a yearlong world tour.
Upon the family’s return home, Schlesinger entered Harvard, where he majored in history and literature and served as drama critic for the Harvard Advocate, the undergraduate literary magazine, for which he also wrote about jazz and politics.
At his father’s urging, he wrote his senior honors essay on Brownson, the largely forgotten 19th century intellectual. His Harvard-professor father, who served as his thesis advisor, then encouraged his son to turn the essay into a book.
After graduating from Harvard in 1938, Schlesinger spent a year in England on a fellowship at Peterhouse collegeat the University of Cambridge. Returning to Harvard, where he had been elected to a three-year term in the prestigious Society of Fellows, he began the research for what became “The Age of Jackson.”
Although Schlesinger had briefly considered becoming a theater critic after graduating from Harvard, it seemed inevitable that he would follow in his historian-father’s footsteps. He never regretted it.
“Research in manuscripts, I discovered is boundless pleasure,” he wrote in his memoir. “There is nothing like the sense of immediate contact with personality one gets from reading someone’s letters, especially when they are written by hand, as they were in the 19th century. Time, I find, passes more quickly in archives than almost anywhere else.”
Rejected for combat duty during World War II due to poor eyesight, Schlesinger served in the Office of War Information in Washington, D.C., and later with the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, London and Paris.
After receiving the Pulitzer Prize for “The Age of Jackson,” for which he also won a Guggenheim fellowship, in 1946, Schlesinger received an associate professorship in the history department at Harvard, where he taught from 1947 to 1961. He taught at the City University of New York from 1967 to 1995.
Vibrant late in life
Schlesinger, who received the National Humanities Medal in 1998, remained both vigorous and busy well into his late 80s. Schlesinger lived in a book- and art-filled Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River that he shared with his second wife, Alexandra Emmet.
An early riser, he’d typically begin his workday about 8 a.m. when he’d cross a garden courtyard and climb a flight of stairs to his office, a three-room apartment whose walls were lined -- and floors were piled -- with books. On the wall behind his desk hung an oil portrait of his father and a watercolor of FDR. An autographed photo of Robert Kennedy was inscribed to “my fellow liberal.” Then, with a break for lunch and a martini, he’d spend his day writing.
In a 2000 Los Angeles Times story, Schlesinger, then 83, said his “only regret is the amount of time I spent addressing small -- though they seemed large at the time -- controversies, when I should have been writing books.
“I got diverted from writing by the compulsion to respond to passing circumstances. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words for newspapers and magazines that I could have poured into books, and I would have been more satisfied with my life. I feel a great frustration. I should have written more books.”
In addition to his son Stephen and wife Alexandra, Schlesinger is survived by two other children from his first marriage, Christina and Andrew Schlesinger, and by a son, Robert Schlesinger, and a stepson, Peter Allan from his marriage to Emmet. He is also survived by three grandchildren.
Stephen Schlesinger and his brother Andrew currently are editing, for the Penguin publishing house, a two-volume set due out this fall of the historian’s diaries from 1952 through 1998. “He’ll still be very much a public figure with those journals,” Stephen Schlesinger said.
Funeral arrangements are pending.
Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.